Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Yahweh, my heart isn’t arrogant, nor my eyes lofty; nor do I concern myself with great matters, or things too wonderful for me.
Our national church voted for a new bishop to lead us for the next few years. The list of nominees was lengthy, including several people who I had met. One was a friend. I laughed as I read his answers to the questions they asked of each nominee because I could hear his voice in the words. To someone who did not know my friend, the answers may have seem flippant, perhaps even insincere, but I knew that they revealed how he felt. He had been nominated and willingly accepted the nomination, but he had no desire to be elected. He accepted because he believed that if it was God’s will, then he should follow and he would do the best job possible. He was willing, but he refused to pursue the position because he did not think it was his to have. His answers may have seemed flippant and insincere, but they shined the light on his humility. I told him, “The best person for a job like this is the one who does not pursue it.” Much to his relief, he did not win, but I am certain he would have done a terrific job if he had.
I understand his point of view. I’m not very good at self-promotion. I hate to write biographies because I find it very difficult to boldly proclaim my virtues to the world. I would rather my talents and experience stand for themselves. When I think about my positive traits, I can counter each one with an equally strong negative trait. I’m detail oriented but I hate making decisions. I’m creative but when I get involved with a creative project I become very narrowly focused, leaving mundane tasks like organization and clean-up until tomorrow. I much prefer to be humble because I recognize my faults and I would rather that someone else lift up my assets.
Just as we were getting ready to leave England, the vicar at the church we were attending asked if I would give a testimony on our last Sunday. As we discussed what I should say, the testimony became a sermon. It was the first opportunity I ever had to preach. The vicar saw something in me and gave me an opportunity. In the end, everyone said they wished they had known I could do that; they wanted me to preach to them again. A few months later, at our new home church, the ladies were beginning to plan an area wide gathering. I didn’t wait for someone to ask if I could lead a workshop. They did not yet know me or my gifts. I boldly offered and they were surprised but excited. They would not have asked if I had not offered.
It is a fine line we walk between boldness and humility. We know on the one hand that we’ll never get ahead if we do not take the reins of our own future. It often seems that if we act humbly, then we are ignored. Sometimes it is important that we tell people about our gifts and talents so that they will know what we are able to accomplish. The key to doing what is right and finding the blessedness of living our faith is finding the right balance.
The Gospel lesson reminds us that the life of faith, the life of humility, is manifested in a life that is lived for others. When we trust in God, we need not pursue after the places of honor or the satisfaction of our lusts and greed. Humility sometimes means presenting our gifts to those who are in need so that we can serve them. It is all about motivation and trusting God to provide opportunities for us to do what He has given us to do.
The Gospel lesson begins at a dinner. Jesus has been invited to dine with the rulers of the Pharisees, and they are watching Him closely. They were people for whom outward appearances were of utmost importance. They wanted to see if Jesus was living according to the Law, doing what He was supposed to do. Would He maintain His own purity, especially in their presence?
Jesus noticed a man with dropsy, a disease that made the man unclean and untouchable. Jesus asked the lawyers if it was alright to heal someone on the Sabbath. They didn’t answer, so Jesus “took him, and healed him, and let him go.” The word here translated “took” means to take hold of or grasp, so Jesus didn’t just say a few words and send him on his way. Jesus touched the unclean man, an act that would have made him unclean in the eyes of all those lawyers. Before they could say anything, Jesus asked, “Which of you, if your son or an ox fell into a well, wouldn’t immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” They couldn’t answer this one, either, because they knew they would disobey the Sabbath laws to save their sons or oxen.
Jewish theologians believed God’s providence continued to govern the world. This was confirmed by the fact that people continued to be born and die on the Sabbath. Consequently, the belief developed that God exercised two prerogatives on the Sabbath: He gave life and he executed judgment (2 Kings 5:7.) So only God could “work” on the Sabbath and healing was considered work. By healing the man with dropsy, Jesus not only touched the untouchable, but He did the unthinkable: He blasphemed. He made Himself equal with God.
Now, that may seem like an odd lesson on a day when the lessons talk about humility. However, Jesus is the ultimate example of humility. After all, He is God and yet left the glory of Heaven to do the Father’s will, to take on flesh to suffer the humiliation of man so that we might join Him in the glory of heaven. See, Jesus took the lowly seat at the table, was raised to the place of glory. He invites us to join Him.
Just as Christ was a humble servant for the people to whom He was sent, we are called to live in faith and share the message of forgiveness and freedom from our burdens with the world. We are given opportunities to use our gifts to share the Gospel with the world. By living a life of humble action, giving to others and sharing God’s grace, we may not end up with fame or fortune or have a huge impact, but we will bless those who see God glorified in our life. The humble will be lifted and the place of honor is much greater than anything a man can offer. We will be seated in the presence of God to bask in His glory for eternity. For this we most certainly can praise God.
We do tend to think highly of ourselves. We each have talents and knowledge that makes us a little better than another. I’m a better photographer than some professionals. I’m a better writer than some bloggers. I’m a better painter than some artists. While I might be better than others, I know that there are many more who are much better than I am. That’s the trouble with thinking too highly of ourselves: even though we might be good at what we do, there is always someone better. I could never hope to compete with professional photographers, writers and artists in this world, and I don’t think I want to try. I’m happy to do what I do and hope that those who experience my work find joy in it.
As Christians, we live in a paradox. On the one hand, the world expects us to boldly blow our own horn so that we can get ahead. As Christians, however, we are reminded that we are called to be like Jesus, who had it all but humbled Himself for the sake of the world. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the crowds not to rush for the best seats at a banquet. He reminds them that there are others who may deserve to sit higher, and that it is better to sit lowly and be raised rather than sit in places of honor to be humiliated when asked to move. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” So, too, it is with us: if we think too highly of ourselves, we will find that there is someone greater. But if we humbly accept the least, we’ll find ourselves raised.
The passage from Proverbs includes a number of random thoughts; each would make a powerful sermon. In the passage from Proverbs, the writer tells us that God’s glory is in what is hidden, but kings’ glory is in the search for God. We might know that heaven and hell are far from us, but we can’t know what’s in the heart of a king. Silver must be refined, for it is in the silver without the dross that we’ll have something precious, so too a king must be cleansed of wickedness to be righteous. The rest of the passage talks about our humility before the king, remembering to take the lowly place and to deal with our neighbors privately.
The writer of Hebrews talks about being a good host, because in doing so we might actually entertain angels. We should seek justice, live honorably and chaste, avoid greed, be obedient to those who have been chosen to lead us, do good and share our resources with others. This passage is about love for others. We not only love others by doing things for them, but in helping them to what is good and right and true. In our world today we are afraid to be hospitable because that the stranger may be someone who can harm us, but what if that stranger were an angel? The marriage bed has nearly become a joke, with divorce statistics so high and unfaithfulness nearly acceptable. Greed, the root of many of our problems, can creep up on us and grow as we see more and more that we think we need to have whether it is material possessions or intangible things.
We are encouraged by today’s scriptures to settle for a lower place until someone values us enough to give us a lift, yet we live in a world that demands we “sell ourselves.” How do we live in this paradox? How do we do what it necessary to succeed and yet also remain humbly respectful of those who are inevitably better? This isn’t a question of worth or ability. It is a matter of pride. It is good to give an employer reasons to hire you, to do a good job and show that you are a valuable asset to any company or organization; it is not good to be too proud.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “But don’t forget to be doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” It takes humility to live for others, to do what is best for our neighbors. It sometimes means doing less for ourselves. Through it all there is one thing to remember: we are to trust in God.
When we put our focus on ourselves, we see the world from a self-centered point of view. We fear that everyone else is also trying to get ahead. We become paranoid that they are willing to do anything to get to the top. When we are not content with our lot in life, we think that no one else is content either. This leads to an attitude of fairness that demands equality in everything, like an eye for an eye. When we are kind to someone, we expect them to return the favor. When we have a dinner party, we anticipate the dinner parties we will be invited to attend in repayment for our hospitality.
Jesus tells these men of power and position that rather than inviting their good buddies, their peers who can repay them an eye for an eye, they should invite the poor to come to their house. This must have been a difficult thing to hear because the purpose of these dinner parties had little to do with feeding the hungry. They were about business, the business of getting ahead. What good could a poor man do for a Pharisee? Besides, the poor, the lame and the blind were cursed and unclean. They could not, by law, have them at their table.
So, Jesus makes the guests look at the world, and the law, from a whole new perspective. What would it be like if they welcomed the hungry to their table? What if they treated the lame and the blind with mercy and compassion rather than contempt? What does the world look like from a position of humility? It is a place of contentment, a place where we are so happy with what we have that praise to God comes before our own needs.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. Empathy is identifying with our neighbors even if we have not had the same experiences. Most of our problems come at us slowly. Bad financial times do not usually come with the purchase on just one item, but with a lifestyle of buying too much for our income. A dollar here and a dollar there can build to a debt that is out of control. Long standing relationships do not fail over one fight but over years of miscommunication. Nobody gains a hundred pounds overnight. Instead it comes one chocolate bar at a time.
Once we are stuck in the middle of our problems it is hard to see a way out. Our accumulated debt is impossible to overcome. Our broken relationships seem beyond repair. Our physical problems are out of our control. Sometimes it takes an outsider to help us find the solution. There are credit repair agencies, relationship counselors, fitness coaches all willing to help us overcome our problems. We may look at them and think that they cannot possibly understand our situation, but they do. They can see from the outside the journey we took. They have often experienced it themselves and have overcome, giving them insight to the problem that we cannot have. Even if they haven’t experienced it, they have knowledge that can help. We can also be empathetic, to identify with our neighbors and help them find a way through.
It is not easy to allow someone into our problems to help us. It is even harder to empathize with others. The writer of Hebrews reminds us to “Remember those who are in bonds, as bound with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you are also in the body.” How do we identify with people in prison or tortured? How do we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, especially when we know that we would never get into the same type of trouble?
Unfortunately, we don’t always know how to find the balance between humility and boldness.
The blessings of our life of faith are great. Those who seek after the high places are the ones that will fall, those who are humble will be lifted up. The life of contentment is a life that has no fear, except the awe inspired fear of God. When we trust in God, we need not worry about our position in the world or strive to make it better. We can give of our wealth for the sake of others and know that tomorrow will be blessed. God honors those who give. On the most basic level we can see this as a giving of our resources to help those who are less fortunate than us. As Jesus told the Pharisees to invite the poor, the lame and the blind, so too we are called to give to those in need.
Yet, we have resources that go far beyond our material wealth and there are needs that are not so visible as those of the poor, lame and blind. We automatically assume that because someone has a big house or a pretty car that they are happy. However, in truth many people who seem to be blessed suffer from even greater dis-ease than those who are poor, lame and blind. They are sick in heart and soul and needs God’s grace for forgiveness, hope and peace. They need to hear the words of Jesus, to let go of their pride and humble themselves before God. We must remember, however, that pride is not limited to the rich and healthy. Everyone is tempted to seek the high places. The healing of a person’s soul, the turning from self is the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
The psalmist writes, “Yahweh, my heart isn’t arrogant, nor my eyes lofty; nor do I concern myself with great matters, or things too wonderful for me.” How many of us look for the big impact without realizing the impact that small actions have on others. Take, for instance, the guy who needs a job, but refuses to work in the mail room because it is below him. He has graduated with a degree and deserves something higher. Some even think they deserve a place in an executive suite without even taking the time to learn what it is like to work in a cubicle. Those people who rush or a rushed through the corporate ladder never learn how to deal with those who remain on a bottom rung. But the guy who humbly accepts the lesser job quickly learns how to rise. With both the education and experience, the humble person who works hard and does his job well will be noticed. None of us are too good for the lowly work of this world and we are not better than those whom we serve.
If we live in a quest for self gratification, we chase after our own wants and needs. In Christ, we are called to live differently. The writer of Hebrews gives us an image of the life of faith manifested in this world. He calls Christians to love one another, to be hospitable to the stranger, empathetic to the imprisoned, faithful in relationships and content in everything. He calls us to look to God who supplies everything we need physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Pride means putting ourselves above the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. Humility means sitting in the lesser place and meeting the needs of others. When we put others, especially God, ahead of ourselves and do what is right, we will find ourselves to be greatly blessed. God sees the humble heart and draws it to Himself. There is no better place for us to dwell. Trusting God is where we’ll find hope, joy, and peace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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